Skip to content

#345 Accountability Begins… Our National Shame

July 8th, 2019

Richard Marker

An alert to those who only read my posts for their thoughts on philanthropy. This is another one that deals with politics. If others in the philanthropy world may feel that it leads to increased advocacy, so be it.

Many of you know that one of my life changing experiences was having been in Berlin on 9 November 1989, known widely as the day the Wall came down. I have written about my thoughts on that day in the past; this piece is inspired by the larger context of my visit to Germany that ended on that date.

1989 was the second generation after WWII. Sadly there are deniers today who choose to not believe the facts of the German depravity and culpability that led to the Holocaust of 6 million Jews, and 5 million others, but the Germans knew then [and still do!] that it was not hyperbole, and represented national shame, embarrassment, and an ineradicable blot on their place in history.

My visit was one of many that the then West German government sponsored to demonstrate that they did not ignore this shame and were trying, in the most institutional ways that they could, to internalize their own commitment to “never again.” Our small group were young-ish leaders in the Jewish world of North America. The 3 weeks were exhausting and powerful.

There was no attempt to sugarcoat German history or to claim that it was unrelated to their present. Thus we saw remnants of the Holocaust institutions, the earliest concentration camps and preliminary gas chambers, the memorials, the archives of the shocking official propaganda developed to shape German opinion. And much more.

Because 1989 was just beyond the 50-year anniversary of the Kristallnacht Pogroms, there were exhibits in libraries, schools, town centers, and elsewhere. We saw how grandchildren confronted their grandparents, how people outed themselves as having Jewish relatives that they denied or rejected to protect themselves. Two generations were enough time for people with memory to come clean, and for those who had not yet been born to learn what their unchosen legacy was all about.

The trip, though, was not only about the Holocaust and German culpability. It was very much about how a nation was re-thinking itself, rebuilding itself, contemplating a new world order, and trying to achieve the delicate balance between a history of German excellence in arts, science, literature, education, music, and more – with this abysmal period. [We also visited places that are chapter headings in Jewish thought over a thousand-year period, but that is for another article.]

We learned that German education mandates Holocaust education and even site visits to “camps.” In those days, there were still enough survivors to have presentations in every school by those who could relate their painful and horrific memories.

We also learned, and we are now getting to the essential point of this essay, that soldiers were taught that they must resist immoral, inhumane orders. Just because something is ordered doesn’t mean one should obey, and just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. The military system taught every single soldier of these distinctions. After all, they knew, it wasn’t only a depraved despotic leader that caused these deaths and the suffering of the Shoah, but it could only happen because of those who decided to follow those orders. I am not an expert on military training or how this is or isn’t taught elsewhere in the world, but I confess that I was profoundly moved by a nation that taught its own civil disobedience as the highest form of civic duty.

It is unnecessary to point out the immoral, dishonest, questionably legal actions of the person occupying the seat of the presidency of the United States today. He is certainly not the first despot in history – and sadly he won’t be the last. But we do need to take stock of what allows so many of our fellow citizens to feel that this immorality and dishonesty doesn’t matter. And we do need to take stock of what allows people, wearing uniforms and acting in the name of this country, to do despicable things that we hope they know are wrong.

After WWII we learned that “just following orders” is not a sufficient alibi when ordered to do immoral and inhumane acts. International law has been enacted to insist on that. But what have we not done in the US education system – of the military or of ICE or the police or even of too many everyday citizens – that they feel free to act in such ways or feel supportive of them? It is beneath contempt and brings a blot on the identity of all of us who call ourselves American who believe in the rule of moral law and justice.

And let’s be clear: the issue isn’t whether the correct descriptions of the places where this insanity is carried out are “concentration camps” or “detention camps” or any other nomenclature. That argument is merely a political obfuscation of the terrible and unacceptable actions taking place.

I have no doubt that one day our country, too, will be held accountable in very real ways. I suspect we too will learn, far too late, what West Germany needed to learn in the 50’s, that we prevent immoral behavior by teaching its unacceptability at every level of society. That doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be despotic leaders, but it diminishes the likelihood that their minions will feel empowered to follow inhumane orders for political purposes.

Let us hope.

#344 Some Musings about Leadership – Perhaps a bit overdue

July 7th, 2019

Richard Marker

A colleague recently expressed surprise that I had not submitted a response to an RFP for leadership training for a foundation board that was posted prominently by a national philanthropy organization. I demurred saying that I really am not an expert on “leadership.” The colleague’s response was pretty strong: “Are you kidding? Of course you are” and went on to remind me of my own career path.

My professional world over the last quarter century has been fully in the area of grantmaking, funder education, and advising funders and families about how to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions. But the colleague reminded me that I have a long history of volunteer leadership roles, and professional work advising and teaching foundation leadership around the world, and senior executive and supervisory roles. I acknowledged that I had both relevant experience and some well-developed thoughts about leadership.

For what it is worth, I calculated that, over the course of my career, I have served on at least 60 boards and chaired 12. [It is a role I relish and would be delighted to join additional foundation boards.] Moreover, when I was an executive, I supervised dozens of professionals and organizations around the world. While I am in the autumn of my career and these roles have been reduced, there are some learnings that have emerged along the way – a few of which may be worth sharing here.

1. I learned early on that there are 2 types of leadership – “ascribed” and “earned.” The former emerges out of “position” – and is often top down; the latter is what others attribute to you independent of the formal “position.” One would like to think that one can hold both roles simultaneously, but it doesn’t automatically follow and isn’t easy.

2. Being CEO or a professional supervisor carries a certain authority. Indeed, one has that ascribed position because there is assumed confidence that one can lead a business, organization, or foundation or some part of one. When one does this well, the staff, board, other stakeholders, and peers all respect the culture, style, and vision of the leader. This confidence must be earned. Without it, a leader has power but only ambivalent or reluctant followers or employees.

3. The empowerment and enfranchisement of others is typically the most effective long-term way to earn that respect. Top-down exercise of power or charismatic style may work for a while, but it rarely inspires genuine long-term loyalty or deep-seated respect. And they certainly do not cultivate future leadership and decision making, indispensable attributes for the long-term viability of any business or organization. [If you see me, ask me about my sobering discovery, very early in my career, about the flaws of charismatic leadership.]

4. The courage to stand for values in the face of organizational challenges is often a measure of how deeply a leader is committed to earning that role. Organizational change matters, and is always disruptive, but when those changes are only because it may be popular or because a few more powerful folks demand it, it may be expeditious but rarely efficacious. [A personal note: Much to my real surprise, in recent months several people told me that what they remember most about my various leadership roles – both as a professional and as a volunteer leader – were the times I stood fast on principle, or told “truth to power” – even when it was unpopular or at professionally cost/risk. Those anecdotes have touched me deeply.]

5. If having a moral compass matters a lot, leadership also requires a profound empathy. That empathy needs to be manifest to those whom one leads. In these days of attention to staff retention and cultivation, perhaps two very concrete examples [of many techniques I used] will illustrate:

a. Career Pathing: When I was a CEO or supervisory executive, I offered to meet with every professional every year to help update their resumes. Why? Well, for one, virtually every professional thinks about his/her next career step; I know I did. Why should I begrudge that ambition in others? No, I didn’t want those colleagues to leave but even more I didn’t want them sneaking around thinking they were disloyal. An unintended consequence was that I often learned that many professionals were 80-90% satisfied but one element of their job was really bothering them. By switching that one assignment with another professional with a different set of priorities, both could be more gratified in their work, and remain longer than they originally intended.

b. Professional Development: In the non-profit sphere, personnel is almost always the largest budget line. So, if there are budget pressures, that is the first place to turn. One line that always seemed vulnerable was the one for professional development. Yet I knew that it was invaluable to the long-term strength of any organization as well as to the growth of individuals within it. Therefore, working with board leadership, we moved that item from being a separate budget line to an assured personnel benefit – in the same category as health benefits. It demonstrated our commitment to how important this was and protected it from budget cutters who saw conferences and staff training as a dispensable luxury item.

6. Effective leadership requires another balancing act as well: keeping an eye on the long term while understanding the daily demands on all elements of one’s organization or business. A visionary who only sees the future may appear charismatic but can often undercut those who need to do the work. One who is only committed to the daily organizational needs may be an outstanding Operating Officer, but rarely can lead the organization into the vagaries and potentialities of the future. This combination of skills and attributes is rarely easy, but, when achieved, it is the mark of outstanding and exemplary leadership.

7. Culture is the grout that holds the organizational edifice together. For example, espousing empowerment and then overruling decisions is likely to inspire only safe behaviors and discourage risk taking. Bragging about staff quality and then always hiring from outside for key positions erodes loyalty and casts doubt on your sincerity. Endorsing the need for equity yet continuing to pay differential salaries to women or minorities is suspect at best. When there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, there is an erosion of “earned” leadership that not only weakens the leader but takes a toll on the business or organization as well.

It is trite to say that leadership is both an art and a science. Typically, it is hard not because of our intentions but because of our blind spots – every single one of us has them.

As we look around the world today, we find a resurgence of a destructive, non-empathetic, self-satisfying leadership, and not only here in the USA. Whether because of blind spots or megalomania, they are the wrong kinds of leaders for long term societal thriving, and a counterproductive paradigm of good leadership. Someday, soon I hope, they will be replaced.

In the meantime, whether on the national, local, or organizational level, I believe that leadership informed by these insights learned over 5 decades may help advise the next generations of leaders in every sector.

#343 – Dancing on the Head of a Pin or the Edge of a Sword

July 3rd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is not about philanthropy; those who subscribe only for our commentary on philanthropy topics may want to take a pass. But the subject matter in this post is timely, so it might be worth a read anyway.

When I was an academic, and then again as a quondam theologian, the discourse often was admired or denigrated as a calculation of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When I left those worlds, I discovered that problem solving mattered more. I was struck by that dialectic last week when I attended a modestly historic event in Paris in international interreligious relations.

The context: In a volunteer capacity, I have been involved in inter-group and inter-religious matters for my entire adult life. Over the last 2 decades, most of those involvements have been on the international level – having had the honor of serving several elected leadership roles.

One of those chair-ships was of the Board of World Religious Leaders, a biennial think tank of leaders from 6 world religions, including some whose names you would certainly recognize. [When elected, I pointed out that all the rest were leaders of followers; I was just a leader of leaders.] That role has taken me to many countries and led to extraordinary friendships with remarkable individuals whose knowledge, passion, and transcendent empathy underscore the universality of religion, even while affirming the uniqueness of their/our own.

This post, though, emerges from another past chair-ship, that of a unique consortium in the Jewish world, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. For those of you who may never have heard of IJCIC, it is the official consortium representing the world Jewish community – including the major denominations and community relations organizations – to other world religious bodies such as the Vatican, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Christian Orthodoxy, and many more. It has been around since 1971.

Two decades ago, IJCIC split with one of those world bodies, the World Council of Churches. Suffice it to say that the reasons were real, but as time went on, it also became clear that it was time to see if it would be possible to get beyond that schism. Those discussions began in 2012 and continued on a behind-the-scenes level since. Last week, in Paris, I am pleased to say, the WCC and IJCIC formally reestablished our relationship. Our hope is that, even when there will be inevitable divergence of points of view, there is now a more open and solid communication to prevent that regrettable 2-decade schism from recurring.

The atmosphere surrounding our meeting is a changed world that neither Jews nor Christians can dismiss or ignore. Our topic, “The Normalization of Hatred” was not pure rhetoric. By any statistical measure, there is more anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti- Muslim behavior and speech than at any time since World War II. And as antinomian nativism surfaces dangerously throughout the world, religious leaders may not be silent, or passive.

If we cannot be silent, what words can suffice?

What emerged was a delicate balance of how to articulate the fear and vulnerability that is now a daily reality for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in so many places. Composing a communiqué that was credible and comprehensible was not easy. For example, does the word “Islamophobia” adequately convey the irrational and irresponsible hatred of Muslims or need we find an alternative way to express that? Or, has the word “antisemitism” been used so much that, in the face of a frightening surge, even in the USA, some disagree on its proper definitions? And what word should we now use to describe a hatred of Christians that see them murdered in prayer?

Our meetings last week were not characterized by disagreement between the Jewish or Christian leaders on the facts or their horrendous implications. However, there was no immediate consensus among the individual attendees about how precise our word choices need to be. Some comments reminded me of my academic years alluded to above, when precision was the only credible way to speak, when anything stated or written must be defensible against any challenge. Others were more committed to expressing our current dystopian reality in ways affirming the aspirational ideals of our respective religious traditions; our Traditions must convey a vision of a better and more inclusive future rather than surrendering to the nihilism that surrounds us. And still others felt that the most recognizable words were the most effective to the largest numbers. “Islamophobia” may be an insufficient word to describe the hatred and abundance of unacceptable hate-actions against Muslims, but it has become the most recognized statement. The definitions of antisemitism may be arguable, but there is little doubt that, by any definition, it is there, and growing, and anti-Jewish behaviors are no longer isolated.

This last group argued, persuasively, that the urgency of the moment takes precedence over academic type precision. This, despite the awareness that there has been a weaponization of this complex shorthand vocabulary by some in order to silence the voices for good and to distort the reality of the dangers we all face.

The WCC and IJCIC, dedicated ourselves not only to restoring a relationship that honors our respective traditions, but also to being assertive voices, together, to a world that needs our commitment to action more than our precision of words. Our group, wisely I think, decided that the edge of the sword poses more of a danger than counting the angels on the head of a pin can solve.

#342 – Why the Decrease in Charitable Giving need NOT be a [Major] Concern – But…

June 20th, 2019

Richard Marker

The Giving USA report confirms what everyone thought it would – giving is down, about 1.7% That is indeed real money and affirms what the non-profit advocates and philanthropy sector warned would happen with the tax changes that went into effect last year.

There are plenty of articles analyzing those numbers, and they are real. And the dollars are real. And they matter a lot to many non-profit organizations, especially smaller ones that are typically undercapitalized from the get-go. They truly need every penny.

Why, then, is the reduction in charitable giving not my [major] concern?

There have been blips in charitable giving every single time there has been any change in the tax code or tax rates. Sometimes those changes have boosted charitable giving and sometimes they have depressed it. But, over time, charitable giving seems to revert to a mean. In other words, tax changes have served to influence when something is given more than if. If one looks at a long-term giving pattern, it is far too early to know how significant the non- itemization will be for givers of modest amounts. My own prediction is that there will be a gradual return to the mean since Americans seem to have internalized giving as a normal thing to do.

But, that doesn’t mean that there are no red flags, and I believe that those red flags are far more significant than the short-term drop in giving:

1. Despite the claim of a healthy economy, middle and lower middle-class incomes have not yet come close to replacing the buying power those earners had a generation ago. Fewer have reliable health insurance, employer sponsored retirement plans, job security, and can afford college tuitions. Even incremental and long overdue wage increases don’t come close to closing that gap. The amazing thing is that voluntary charitable giving is keeping pace at all [other than by the very wealthy whose proportional wealth has skyrocketed and should be ashamed of themselves if they haven’t increased their giving as disproportionately.]

2. The deep-seated distrust of institutions is cataclysmic. Nonprofits may fare better than some other institutions, but they are not exempt from this distrust. One still hears too many people believing that non-profit people are either lazy and inefficient or that they are secretly making a profit off others’ largesse – or both. All of this distrust has profound and frightening implications for civil society as a whole. Of course, it impacts charitable giving but more so, it erodes the fragile network that allows civic engagement and community organizations to provide such an important role.

3. Even if charitable giving were to rise, it may lead us to a false sense that all would be well. It wouldn’t be. The charitable sector cannot be expected to replace public funding for health care, education, retirement, food safety, children’s nutrition – and so much more. Under the horrendous rhetoric that taxes are bad so cutting them is good, we are paying the price of taxpayers no longer paying for what we should be paying for. Until we reverse that terrible governing [or, more accurately, anti-governing] principle, and develop a more rational, fair, and responsible system of taxes that people feel are appropriate, reliance on the voluntary sector will be a fool’s mission. That is not to suggest that there will not always be a role for the voluntary sector but that this increasing reliance on voluntarism to do what an underfunded government doesn’t won’t get us out of this mess.

Taxes are a reflection of where we think public funding should be. Most of us care about more than roads and bridges [would that they were properly maintained]. And we care about more than police and fire and EMT folks [even when they sometimes need some serious equity training]. I believe that the vast majority of us care about the health of our food and our children and our air and our water and our old age…..

When we recognize that being a responsible member of any society requires that we pay our fair share for those things, and we pay for those through a fair and reasonable tax system, we can begin to return to our question of charitable deductibility and voluntary contributions. When that happens, I will be first in line.

Until then, count me among those who are advocating, as loudly and persuasively as I know how, to build a society and government that honors the needs of all with integrity and dignity.

I will continue to be an active volunteer and to put my charitable money there as well, but the shortfall in that as reported by Giving USA isn’t the grievance that anguishes me. Irresponsible, shortsighted, dystopian public policy is.

#341 Foundations Must Not Fall Into the “Partisan” Trap

June 19th, 2019

Richard Marker

As with so many of my colleagues in the philanthropy world, I have been involved in the “complete count” effort regarding next year’s USA national census. This involvement was a national attempt for our sector to help correct for historic under-counts of lower income and other marginal populations. Since those numbers have a 10-year implication for allocation of federal funding, representative apportionment, and more, this has been seen as a commitment by the philanthropy world and the organizations we support to equity and equitability. Our involvement was never understood as a partisan or political involvement, but rather a sector-wide role to do something that should have been politically neutral to support a constitutionally mandated action.

Why then did a foundation program officer demur about taking a public position on the census after a profoundly moving day bringing hundreds of local stakeholders together. Her argument: her board won’t take “partisan” positions.

The 10-year census is constitutionally mandated. It was never intended to be “political” but rather an objective tool for democracy to function at the most equitable level. And while certain populations have notoriously been undercounted, that has never been because of purposeful interventions by politicians. [I acknowledge that those undercounts may have been unintended consequences of inequitable public policy but not purposeful.] Yet in this go-round, we now know unequivocally, there has been a systematic attempt to co-opt the census process for overtly partisan purposes. As of this writing, there is still the faint hope that the Supreme Court will honor the intent and history surrounding the census and disallow the last-minute citizenship question imposed by the current administration. But the damage is done and far too many fear the government and don’t trust the data gathering. And the fact that this foundation staff person felt an implicit restriction is only one of the signs. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Some months ago, a parent of one of the victims of one of the all too many school shootings [for which the USA should be ashamed and angry] bemoaned that talking about rational gun policy has become “partisan”. He himself was a lifelong Republican, but the very fact that he tried to discuss his concerns with Republican politicians about this branded him as not one of them. He thought he was discussing policy but the party with which he had always identified has defined the very discussion as a partisan issue, and he was on the wrong side. He was furious and frustrated.

Since their inception, there has been a debate about how porous our social safety net of Social Security and Medicare should be. But let’s be clear: Social security and Medicare are mandated contracts with all American workers. Everyone has money withheld and contributed throughout their working career with the assumption that the government will honor its contract and provide what they [we] have every right to expect. Yet many in a single party now try to argue that it is not a contractual obligation at all but simply an annual gift that can be discontinued or privatized or reduced at their will. These politicians have made this a partisan matter and not a discussion of genuine ethical public policy.

Any reader, I am sure, can add to this list during this dismal era in American politics.

What are we as funders to do? Most foundations have a history of choosing to be overtly and explicitly non-partisan, often restraining from legal and legitimate advocacy since they don’t want to appear “partisan.” The danger, of course, is that as certain political forces try to make every matter of the social weal and public policy to be no more than a partisan divide, it can serve to intimidate and limit much needed public discourse on policy and civil behavior, and to silence some of the most educated and thoughtful independent voices [including but not limited to us].

Those of us in the philanthropy sphere must resist this willful usurpation strenuously. All of our work is in dialectic with public policy, and we have an obligation to help formulate public policy with a vision of an engaged and enfranchised populace. Just because one party chooses to make policy discussions “partisan” does not mean that we must yield to that. It is demagogic and violates the intent of the Constitutional system under which we operate. Sadly, it incurs a like reaction by the other major political party. When every issue is “us vs. them”, with only political winners or losers, public policy, civil society, and the very nature of what America stands for is radically harmed. The American ethos is the inevitable loser – even if a few, a very few, will win.

To be sure, there are legal limits to our role in the political process – certain lobbying is not permitted for private foundations, but much more is permitted for public charities. As a rule, though, advocacy for policy that is not related to a candidate or pending legislation is not lobbying and is permitted by all. It is not partisan to have an opinion and point of view, and the philanthropy world should be a clarion and courageous voice in the face of the purposeful “partisan” divide in this country. We must never allow our voices or those of our colleagues to be stifled. Those of us who have important leadership roles in public discourse must never feel intimidated by others’ partisanship for us to exercise our forceful, thoughtful role in the public sphere.

It is not only our right; in this misanthropic era, it is the only right thing to do.

#340 “Foundation People Aren’t Like Other People”

June 18th, 2019

Richard Marker

There I was, sitting in the waiting room at New York’s Penn Station. The person sitting next to me was on the phone discussing her work for the entire time I was there, in a decidedly non-whispery voice.

I have only an inkling what this person does, and even less about what those on the other end do. All I can report is the one line that immediately caught my attention. “You can’t let it upset you. Remember, foundation people aren’t like other people.”

You are probably not surprised that I began to listen more intently, and it became clear that she was talking about a very well-known foundation. And, interestingly, one that has made public strides to become more user friendly and equity oriented. Yet, evidently, not so much so that the invisible person on the other end could resist complaining.

All of us in our field know that saying “no” or “yes” is loaded, no matter how hard we try. I want to be very clear that I have no reason to assume that the foundation person was unreasonable, curt, demanding, officious, or any of the other pejoratives for which we are known, sometimes deservedly. So, let’s not assume that the foundation person was culpable. Nevertheless, the person I was listening to had no problem painting us all with a single brush stroke.

Is it true that we are “not like other people”? Is it true that our privileged role, by definition, makes us inscrutable to everyone else? Is our power, exercised or not, so intimidating that, even without trying, we all seem to be living in our own world?

I don’t think so and many of us spend a lot of time trying to model accessibility, honesty, candor, and support. Yet, this episode, even if anecdotal and not worthy of statistical generalizations, is one that we all need to take seriously. Especially since the well-known foundation has very publicly tried to model best behaviors, this comment cuts deep. We clearly have a lot to do.

There is much to say about issues of equity, decision making, and many of the larger systemic issues – about which we have written in the past and to which we will return in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, let’s not forget that many of us on the grantmaking and foundation side of things still have some catching up to do if we are to be models of genuine partnership, collaboration and collegiality.

One never knows what lessons one can learn simply minding one’s own business. Hearing unsolicited evaluations, and taking them to heart, isn’t a bad start.

#337 Localism need not be Isolationism: A Mandate for Philanthropy

May 26th, 2019

Richard Marker

I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t observed it on a number of recent occasions in philanthropy settings. [As readers know, I try to write these pieces so that individual funders or foundations are not easily identified, so the examples below will be, purposely, devoid of identifiable specifics. But they are real.]

In our field there has been a very healthy discussion about the best ways to use our voluntary resources, including our philanthropic dollars and leadership roles. That is always appropriate, never more so than in this misanthropic political era. None of us want those precious resources to be wasted, and most of us recognize that there are persistent systemic issues that beg our attention.

Many funders, either for reasons of habit or because they have carefully determined that it is the best for them, focus all or most of their resources locally. Place-based philanthropy is surely as old as any philanthropy, and most of us can see needs right in front of us if we choose to look. However, rarely does that local funding rise to the level of systemic solutions.

If one reads much of the current literature, one may feel that such local funding is inadequate or ill spent or simply irrelevant. It isn’t. For even if we were to determine that we know exactly how to solve huge systemic issues such as education, health care, poverty, climate change, etc., the only way that happens is if there is an on-the-ground component. People need to be healthy, not just the health care system. Children need to learn, not just school systems. People need to practice good environmental practices, not just through the EPA [when it is allowed to do its job!] That all happens to real people in real places, all of whom are, by definition, somewhere- that is local.

Let me be clear and reiterate what most of you know: I am a big believer that social and systemic change requires advocacy, big picture thinking, and a commitment to equity. Classic philanthropic giving alone won’t cut it. But I also know that it can only work through implementation, on the ground, locally.

However, what I recently discovered, to my surprise, is that many funders, yes, even some well-staffed foundations, still don’t see the relationship of their local funding to a bigger picture. They have decided to fund locally and act as if that place is a closed, self-contained system.

For one example, I recently was present when a group of funders were reviewing their reaction to a very genuine local disaster/crisis. Their compassion and generosity were beyond reproach. They did good things, their thinking was right on, and they developed some short-term very effective responses. What surprised me, though, was that they had gone through the entire process, and were about to extrapolate long term implications, without anyone in the room having heard of an organization that has already developed best practices through many disasters and has examples directly applicable to the community in question. It wasn’t my imagination, because when I mentioned that organization, everyone in the room confirmed that they hadn’t heard of it.

It was a classic example where localism had, unnecessarily, led to isolationism. It might be disappointing if a single funder had acted and thought that way, under the assumption that no one knows and understands their “place” as well as they do. But when a group of funders and foundations, some of whom were quite sizeable and staffed, acted that way, it troubled me.

Another example of this is the tendency of some affinity-defined groups to see themselves as unique. “Our… [choose one: religion, ethnicity, political history, race, gender, …] is not like others and, just as others cannot understand us, so too we need not learn from others.” I have previously written about the “with us or agin’ us” tendency of intersectionality, but here I am speaking about the tendency of some funders within these groups to mirror an isolationist tendency in their funding decisions. Why learn from or collaborate with others if we don’t feel that they can understand our uniqueness.

Lest anyone misconstrue what I am trying to say, I want to categorically affirm that there are distinct challenges to every affinity-defined group and there are indeed legitimate special interests and concerns that should be factored into all sorts of areas, including funding. At the same time, there are generic issues of decision-making and ethics and equity and systems- change that transcend those distinctions. It is not, and should not be, one or the other; understanding both the distinctive and universal at the same time is absolutely crucial.

One of the reasons I began to be an educator of funders in 2000 was my impatience with the field’s mantra at the time: “You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation” – usually stated with a self-satisfied chuckle. One doesn’t hear that very often anymore because the world has changed: There are more affinity groups. There are more on-line resources. There have been more articles in the mainstream media about our field. And there are more educational opportunities. Even those who may choose to fund locally or idiosyncratically are fully aware that there is a field, there are substantive things to know. [I am not so naïve to think that everyone joins those groups or takes those courses, only that working in isolation is now a choice, not a default.]

There is, as well, an implicit and important mandate for local or place-based or affinity-defined funders to take the larger picture seriously. Just as it is impossible to actualize systemic change in the abstract, so too it is impossible for those funders committed to systemic change to make good funding decisions if they don’t fully see how those decisions work- or don’t. Place based funders hold vital insights and actionable data that needs to feed into the policy and systems conversations. Some few situations may very well prove to be too idiosyncratic to be useful, but most local funding situations are reflective of larger challenges. How local funders answer those questions of learnings, provide information on what worked and didn’t, and participate in a dynamic dialectic on those issues can make the difference between moving toward real change vs another “big bet” gone sour.

In other words, funder isolation is counterproductive in both directions; place-based and affinity-defined funders can – and many do – learn from emerging practices and systems thinking; and big picture funders can – and many do – learn from those on the ground.

Place-based and affinity-defined funding will always have a place. Systems funders do as well. Neither should work in isolation even if they choose to fund only within their sphere of commitment.

Good philanthropy requires no less.

#338 A Faux Pas – and A Lesson for Philanthropy

May 21st, 2019

Richard Marker

This brief vignette is written while in Rome for meetings and presentations. Among the topics of the international gathering, the primary reason for this trip, is the challenge of NGO responses to the movements of peoples around the world, and of migrants in Europe in particular.

Some of those responses are nothing short of heroic, but, in context, the situation is overwhelming and has more to do with public policy than hands on human services. I suspect that last statement surprises no one reading this piece.

However, a very personal experience showed how one can unintentionally find oneself making what may be perceived to be a political statement – especially one at odds with one’s own position. And, by extension, a teachable moment for us in the philanthropy sector.

As the last minute, I was asked to moderate the keynote sessions that outlined the relevant data, some applicable NGO responses, and the challenges to the international leaders present. I make no claim to be an international expert in the field of migrants, but I am an experienced speaker and moderator, so the organizers felt comfortable that my last-minute substitution was a safe one. I daresay they were correct but…

My chosen attire that day happened to include a green dress shirt. It was an aesthetic choice and not a political one. [Sometimes when I participate in climate and environmental sessions, I do wear green purposely, but on this occasion, there was no such intentionality.] After our session, a very good friend who now lives in Italy, a world-renowned scholar whose knowledge is exceeded only by his humility, pulled me aside. He knew me well enough to know that what I just reported about my attire was true, but he gently informed me that, in Italy today, wearing green is an anti-immigrant symbol – and to Italian eyes and in other settings, my shirt might have been read as a political counterpoint to the substance of the presentations. [He went on to give me a couple of other recent examples of the same error – clearly to assuage my evident horror of my unintended statement.]

WOW!!!

Having spoken in 39 countries over the years, and visited many others, I pride myself on cultural sensitivity. I confess that this one caught me fully unaware. But it did reinforce how important it is to not assume that our actions are always perceived as benign, even when seemingly innocuous. When one is in a leadership or public or funder role, one must never allow oneself the indulgence to think that others won’t judge our actions, our words, and, yes, even our attire.

In the current philanthropy world, this is a real life symbol of the lessons we as funders must take with us in all of our work, of what it means to be a funder – with privilege and power. Where one sits, literally and figuratively, is a statement. What one funds is surely a statement. What one says and how one speaks are, unquestionably, statements.

In my teaching philanthropists about philanthro-ethics, it has been my experience that the vast majority want to fund wisely, and also to behave well. It is rare indeed that a funder wants to lord the power imbalance over their grantees and petitioners. Usually theirs are errors of unawareness. Behaviors or words that may seem innocuous to a funder may be heard as judgmental or fully loaded by those on non-profit side. Letters are often scrutinized for their underlying secret code, and a passing observation about a project or priority may be read as an alert.

If one is a leader or a funder, self-awareness becomes a sine qua non, and sensitivity to our affect a mandate. Without it, we can inadvertently appear patronizing. Worse, we may so intimidate our grantees that we never have the open communication to let us make the informed decisions about our funding that we truly want to make. This not the first time this point has been made, and it won’t be the last.

But, as I was reminded yesterday, it matters.

#336 Varsity Blues, Legacy, and Equity: the Challenge to the Philanthropy Sector

April 1st, 2019

Richard Marker

This was first posted on 21 March. Apparently a tech error prevented it from being disseminated to all subscribers.

I was a third generation “legacy” attendee of an Ivy League school. Growing up, I don’t recall too much uncertainty about whether I could go there – only if. We attended football games, my family made annual gifts [although, admittedly, there are no buildings or chairs bearing the family name], and I knew all of the school songs [do they still do that?]

My subsequent career has, I am proud to say, justified their acceptance, but I daresay, looking back, I would have been a marginal applicant today. It is my suspicion that the admissions committee did not have a heart to heart about my capabilities; rather, I was a “legacy; next application…”

In those days, that kind of legacy was sort of assumed. It rarely required an affirmative or expensive buy-in. It was the privilege that accompanied privilege.

We didn’t think about that too much in those by-gone days. I became more aware of it during the 11 years I subsequently spent teaching/working at a different Ivy League school as the world began to change and last names more readily attracted attention. But so did proactive “diversity”. There was the sense that whatever favors names or money or national origin or color brought, they were capable students who just happened to have a leg up in the ever more perverse and competitive admission process. [Along the way, I learned that there was a lot more inscrutability to the process than how much money someone had.] [My son and my nephew chose not to attend the family legacy school, so it is left to our 3-year-old grandson and his cousins to, perhaps, resurrect the chain. But that is a long way off – a good thing given the current financial realities. And only incidental to the remainder of this post.]

In any case, over the past days, there have been millions of words written about the admissions scandals – legal and illegal – in American higher education. What concerns me in reading them is that too many of the op-eds and government responses focus on too narrow a question. Here are some of my responses:

• Let’s be cautious about passing new laws regarding endowments and tax deductability. Bad cases make bad law and too quick a “fix” may saddle us with even bigger problems for both philanthropy and education. Both need fixes – but not headline-driven patches.

• I am struggling with the all too thin line between illegal bribery and legal influence buying. Of course, there is a difference, but they reflect deeper systemic issues that encompass both.

• Underlying the bribery is the reality that that not all favored admission is to the wealthy; it is, though, to the wealth of the school Athletes bring a different financial value to a school. All one has to do is look at how much a university nets from a bowl game or a March Madness slot.

• There is a real issue of what the true meaning of education has become. Here is a case where a very dated marketing device to encourage higher education has come back to bite us: Starting in the 50’s, students were encouraged to attend higher education to enhance their earning ability; true and fair enough. But when earning ability supersedes critical thinking and education as a deep-seated societal value, it loses something. [I needn’t belabor this point: We are paying the price today in the character of public discourse, the absence of critical thinking, and the horrendous lacunae of basic knowledge by too many in the USA.]

• This leads us to the challenge to and of education. We have an ethically abysmal system. Even moderately upper middle-class families cannot afford most elite higher education, and lower middle class are even priced out of State schools. And if one takes a look at the shocking attempts to defund and privatize El-Hi education as well, we have a profoundly cynical approach to the concept of civic obligation toward an educated and literate populace. [I am reminded that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin created the first free library out of a belief that a democracy can only function if the demos is literate! How far have we fallen from those ideals?!]]

There are few public policies more transcendent than that of education. With the erosion of the commitment to a thoughtful and thinking population, combined with the sense that, at least at the higher education level, it must be bought, we have a much greater problem than a few wealthy people securing their place in a social caste system.

Philanthropy does not have clean hands in this. After all, the largest gifts typically go to the already wealthy institutions. And while a few outliers like Michael Bloomberg may have committed a 10-figure gift toward scholarships at his own elite alma mater, one has to look very long and hard to find equivalent 7, 8, or 9 figure gifts to the institutions a bit lower on the class scale, but perhaps no lower on the teaching one. Our field talks a lot about equity, power, and the challenge of privilege, but it is rare indeed that our largest investments go to the kinds of investments and grantmaking that redress those societal needs.

More than anything, education needs a major adjustment in public policy – more resources, more affordability, and more genuine commitment to critical thinking. No question that philanthropy can never and should never be expected to do that alone. What we do have is an obligation to make sure that we are using our position of suasion and our resources in ways that narrow the caste, wealth, and learning gap.

If not, we may be sure that Varsity Blues type scandals will continue to cast a harsh light on our privilege.

#334 – Confessions of an Old[er] White Guy: The Changing Faces of Philanthropy

March 4th, 2019

Richard Marker

Tsk, tsk. No, not that kind of confession. And even if it were, none of those youthful indiscretions would rise to the level of what in normal times should be the basis for appropriate exclusion from the Presidency or Supreme Court. Read on anyway.

In the close to 20 years I have been teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals, it has been rare indeed to find any session with more than a handful of men – of any age, race, ethnic background. And when one removes the principals, I.e., those who made or control the money, from the statistics, the numbers of older white men can probably be counted on one hand.

Over that time, it was never surprising to find a seminar populated only by women, and that is also true when I speak to or attend regional associations and other affinity groups in our field.

There has, though, been a noticeable change over those years: more people of color, or of differing national origins, etc. are visible, so from an optics perspective [both meanings of the term], the philanthropy field seems to reflect diversity – albeit a clear gender majority. It is no exaggeration when I report that I am often the oldest, and often the only, white male in a philanthropy room.

[Admittedly, when I have had occasion to work with foundation boards, the mix of trustees does not typically reflect that diversity, although gender balance does seem to be well on the way to parity.]

I write this as our field attempts to deal with an interlocking and complex reality – both internally and as to our larger societal role. By definition, those of us who are in a position to give money away are privileged. For those who have or control the money, that privilege extends far beyond the foundation or grantmaking space; but even for those whose background and resources may be less advantaged, the very roles we all play put all of us squarely in the privilege space. The challenge is how to properly, ethically, and effectively account for that privilege in our decision making, our empowerment of others, and in our relationship to the larger world, some of whom are grantees. If one reads the emerging literature from many others in the field, it will never be simple as long as one accepts that there is legitimacy to having independent funder entities. [Even if one advocates the elimination of those entities, as some do, it is not automatically obvious how one decentralizes and empowers decision making and resource control.]

A bit of autobiographical context. [if that is not interesting to you, please skip the next part.]

I am old enough that I grew up at a time when everyone was either a WASP or a WASP wannabe. There were Catholic WASPS, Jewish WASPS, Black WASPS, what used to be referred to in those days as “Oriental” WASPS. We all dressed, and often spoke, as if we were prepared to take our place in the Manor, or its representative law firms, clubs, and white shoe investment firms. And even if one didn’t quite make it into those circles, every one of the other firms and clubs acted as if they were of that class.

This was a reflection of a time when America was viewed as a melting pot leading to a desired homogeneity – the unstated ideal of which was upper class-ish, Anglophilic, sameness.

I graduated college in December 65, so my undergraduate experience fit that mold. But the culture changes of the mid-60’s challenged all of those assumptions about how we acted, dressed, and affiliated. Suddenly it was cool to be African American – so much so that lots of white males sported Aftros and spoke in Afro-slang. Liberation movements of all sorts – religious, ethnic, gender, national origin, led to changes of attire and décor. Alternative careers were celebrated, along with alternative life styles. Bras were burned, and jeans replaced 3-piece suits. Suddenly everyone was something other than that dreaded milquetoast WASP.

The halcyon days of everyone being an establishment alternative didn’t last long. Soon there was a palpable competition for whose group had the greatest historic grievance. “My group’s suffering was greater than your group’s suffering….” Anti-establishment morphed into siloed diversities.

It is no exaggeration to say that the USA was never the same. Mostly for the better – ]although some of the reactionary responses at this moment in history, emboldened by unconscionable words and behaviors of this administration, should make us all shudder!]

Laws have changed, Hiring has changed. Our vocabulary has changed. Our social realities have changed. And any further discussion needs to, at minimum, acknowledge those changes – even if nowhere near adequate or complete. Nevertheless, how to actually account for that diversity in the centers of power has been elusive. Tokenism, on the whole, has been the response of choice, and, even today, still is in too many settings.

Many well-meaning folks of privilege tried to compensate for that by developing approaches that, in retrospect, can only be called patronizing. To take but one personal example: When I was working/teaching at Brown University in the 70’s, the school had adopted – for want of a better term – Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Brown is as New England establishment Ivy as there is; Tougaloo is an “historically Black Southern College.” Many faculty, myself included, made symbolic visits to teach short term courses. All of us meant well, but were our efforts little more than patronizing exercises in privileged white folks modeling another life style? 40 years later one looks at things quite differently. [For the record, the Senior Chaplain at Brown, Charles Baldwin, did much more and deserves posthumous credit for it. He helped fundraise, coached top administrators, participated with their board, and exhibited a long-term commitment that rose above the self-critique I am applying to most of the rest of us.]

In any case, these times don’t allow that kind of tokenism or patronizing – certainly not in our world of philanthropy. Many [most?] of our field have progressed from know-it-all exhibition of power to an acknowledgement that we haven’t been as smart as we thought. After all, if we had been, illiteracy, homelessness, hunger, poverty, xenophobia and so much more would have become relics of a long-gone era. We have learned that there are lots of folks who know at least as much as we do, or more, about how to implement the kinds of changes we want to enable with our funding.

Over the years, our field has been trying to figure out the best ways of getting that knowledge into the decision-making rooms early enough to make a difference. Hire field of service expertise? Create slots on grants committees for representatives of the served population? Enable safe spaces for grantees to share feedback and assessment with and about funders?

Should that extend to governance as well? Can any funding entity credibly fund in a community or field of service or an at-risk population if none of those folks are in the rooms of decision-making power?

Notwithstanding the serious and cutting-edge work by several prominent organizations in our field, which I applaud, this is never easy. Empowerment of others is hard enough when there aren’t class or racial or ethnic or gender divides. [Ask almost any businessperson.] It is especially hard when our funding catchment includes many of these populations and there may only be space in the boardroom for a very few. The challenge is: can “privilege” be extended with surrendering it? It is not simply an organizational question: it involves social, economic, and many other divides and for all the “metrics” that we can develop, it will always be challenging.

Which brings me to my “confession.”

I have learned that age-ism is real.

I first experienced it when I was 57 years old and was being aggressively recruited by a search firm to be the next CEO of an organization. I was never interested in the position; it would never have been right for me. But I did know someone who was absolutely perfect for the job and told the head hunter of him. His response: “we know of him, but we are looking for someone younger”. That is an exact quote!!!

I told him that the person I recommended, and I were the same age; why was he pursuing me? His response: “Oh. We thought you were younger.”

While flattering, it was a surprising and pretty direct truth that slipped out. As I have become older, I see that the issue is real. There have been speaking gigs and advisory contracts where the choice went to someone much younger, and of a different gender – and have been told directly that age and gender were the reason. When that starts happening more than a couple of times one sees a pattern. If I once had the privilege of an elite education and background and a record of prestige positions, I was suddenly in a less desirable class.

But, before resenting those experiences, I do have to catch myself. Once upon a time I was the wunderkind and was the “youngest” or “first” to do lots of things and I was able to do so because of the advantages I started with. It would be wrong to resent someone else having that turn.

What I and we must never forget is that far too many have never had access to those positions to lose. My own experiences may enhance my empathy but must never be allowed to blind me to those who look at power, privilege, and position from the outside looking in and can only imagine what it is like. As philanthropists, we need to find ever more ways to open the doors and not just the drapes.